The great wall

Some north Chico residents lament city’s allowance of big construction in their backyard

The backside of the new Ray Morgan Co. building as seen from Pat Hurton’s backyard.

The backside of the new Ray Morgan Co. building as seen from Pat Hurton’s backyard.

PHOTO by Meredith J. Cooper

On a sunny afternoon last week, Pat Hurton walked out his back door into his well-manicured yard and looked up at a behemoth, a 24-foot-high wall that sits 10 feet behind his fence.

That wall—actually the backside of a new warehouse/conference room building for the Ray Morgan Co.—wasn’t there six months ago, and it surely wasn’t there when Hurton and his wife bought their home in 2013.

“We’ve put quite a bit of money into this house,” said Hurton, 72, pointing to new countertops in the kitchen. “This is meant to be our last house.”

Now, not only does the Ray Morgan expansion block out the morning sun and replace an otherwise pleasant enough view with an arguable eyesore, Hurton is convinced it will have a negative impact on his property value, which three independent real estate agents have confirmed. He contacted the owners of Ray Morgan, whom he said seem willing to work with the neighbors, and the city. That’s when he really got upset.

“The city botched this,” Hurton said. “What they overlooked was the impact this would have on us and the neighborhood.”

The building, at approximately 200 feet wide, spans three backyards, including the Hurtons’, in the Amber Grove neighborhood, and is visible from the homes across the street as well. What’s more, he said, the neighbors were never alerted to the impending construction, which would have given them a chance to voice their objections.

The gist of what happened, according to Mike Sawley, the city planner assigned to the project, is this: The Ray Morgan Co. owns the land at 3131 Esplanade, where its main building sits facing the street. Because the new construction was on land the company already owned, the project was considered “minor,” eliminating the need for architectural review.

“We looked at the building and made sure it was architecturally compatible with the main building in front and that it met height limits and setback requirements,” Sawley said by phone. “I made sure that … there was no lighting on the back of it that would illuminate people’s backyards.”

Indeed, the city’s code regarding site design and architectural review does qualify “new construction on existing, partially developed parcels” as minor projects that can be approved administratively. “Minor projects are those which because of their limited size and scope have minor aesthetic implications,” the code reads.

The purpose of the code, however, among other things, is to “enhance the desirability of living conditions upon the immediate site or in adjacent areas.” Regarding minor projects, it goes on to explain: “If the Director determines that an otherwise minor project may have greater aesthetic implications, the director may refer the project to the [Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Board] or [Planning] Commission.”

In Hurton’s opinion, the fact that a 24-foot-tall building was being proposed just 10 feet away from one-story residences should have been enough to trigger that extra review step.

“That’s a minor project? You’ve got to be joking me,” he said.

The neighborhood was never notified of the construction because it never went before a review board or commission, Sawley explained.

Sawley said he’d been to the site, and when asked his thoughts on whether the building was compatible with the neighborhood, he said, “It’s part of the commercial corridor along The Esplanade. Anybody who lives next to a commercially zoned area is subject to seeing commercial buildings in that space.”

That’s been the general response Hurton’s gotten from the city, too. “But look at the commercial buildings at the other entrances to Amber Grove—those buildings … fit in with the neighborhood. So we assumed if they were going to build [next door], that they’d build something that was compatible with the neighborhood.”

Hurton drafted a complaint against the city that he planned to have signed by himself and four other neighbors and submit this week. The city will have 45 days to respond, after which, if it’s denied, Hurton and his neighbors can consider suing for damages.